Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.
Soba noodles can be eaten throughout Japan but they are especially famous in Nagano. With abundant buckwheat and fresh water from the mountains, Nagano’s artisans make simple yet incredibly aromatic soba. After a plate or two or three, you find yourself hooked on this deceptively delicious dish.
And while it’s not necessarily true that the soba you make yourself is more delicious—let’s be honest, our crudely cut soba noodles pale in comparison to a soba master’s—the experience is a whole lot of fun and makes for a great memory. There are a number of places throughout the prefecture where you can try making soba for yourself and learn to appreciate soba made by the professionals.
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The Kiso Valley is a very popular destination in Nagano prefecture, especially for backpackers and history buffs who enjoy its beautiful forests and undisturbed post towns. Most visitors head straight for Narai, Tsumago or Magome-juku, but there are eight other historical towns in this forest valley with their own secrets waiting to be uncovered by adventurous travelers.
Located on a perch at the foot of Togakushi Mountain high above the venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City is Togakushi Kogen. Signs of spring are starting to appear throughout Togakushi as it transitions out of winter and into the green season. As the snow melts, the ‘mizubasho’ skunk cabbage and the Togakushi ninjas are coming out of hibernation. Even the bus from Nagano Station has switched destinations from the ski area to the entrance to the fabled Okusha (Inner Shrine). (See the updated Transportation Guide) And for people coming by car, it is only 60 minutes from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada to the entrance to Okusha when using the Expressway.
According to my Togukashi ninja connection, Yamaguchi-san of soba restaurant “Yamaguchiya”,
*Snow still remains along the approach to Okusha, but the roads are completely clear.
*The creamy white mizubasho flowers in the Togakushi Forest Reserve look like they’ll blossom a week early this year, around the end of April.
*The two ninja sites have announced their opening dates for 2013: Togakushi Ninpo Center will open on Friday April 19th and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park will start up again on Saturday April 27th.
Nagano Prefecture as a whole is blessed with so much beautiful natural scenery, but within Nagano, Togakushi is special. The massive cedar trees lining the path to Okusha really impart a sense of the power of nature. Lately those famous trees are experiencing a boom of sorts as they have become known as a ‘power spot’ in Japan. But take one step off the path and into the Togakushi Forest Preserve, and you’ll have all that peaceful nature to yourself. The snowy white flowers of the unfortunately named skunk cabbage are especially delightful. And be sure not to miss Kagami-ike, aka ‘Mirror Pond’ which perfectly reflects the grand Togakushi Mountain peaks.
In addition to all the natural beauty, Togakushi is home to some of the best soba noodles in Nagano Prefecture, which itself is Japan’s soba mecca. Besides being a prime growing area for buckwheat, there is just something different about the noodles made here in the refreshingly clean mountain air using the crystal clear mountain spring water.
And, don’t forget the Togakushi ninjas. This is the home of the Togakure-do school of ninjutsu, and there are 2 locations to get a feel for what Togakure-do ninjutsu is like. They are the Togakushi Ninpo Center and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park.
Togakushi is so much more than just nature, soba and ninjas. There’s the spiritual tradition (Chusha, the ‘Middle Shrine’, is especially rich in mysticism), bamboo ware and so much more. This green season, come and check and experience Togakushi yourself. For places to stay, there are some facilities in Togakushi (including ryokans and a Youth Hostel), and/or there are onsen resort towns nearby, including Togura-Kamiyamada.
Nobody does soba noodles as well as Nagano. If you come to Nagano, it is absolutely against the rules to not try our buckwheat noodles. But with more soba restaurants than one could count, how do you know which one to go to? Well, Kusabue in Komoro City has been around for over 400 years, so that’s a good sign that they know their noodles. They have 6 locations from Nagano City to Saku City, but the main store is in Komoro right next to the famed ‘hole castle’ Kaikoen. (Most castles tend to be perched on the top of a hill. When you see Komoro’s distinctive configuration, you’ll know where it’s nickname comes from.)
Komoro’s Kaikoen is a popular tourist destination in Nagano. And with its location adjacent to the castle, Kusabue makes a great spot for lunch.
I recently made my Kusabue debut. Of course I had heard about the restaurant (they’re especially known for their generous volumes), but this was my first time to put chopsticks to their noodles. So how was it? Now I know why Kusabue is so well-known and well-regarded. There’s something about the flavor, the environment (being made in an area with such clean air and water), the shop’s ambience, and the history that makes Kusabue’s soba stand out. And I should know — I’ve had lots of Nagano soba.
For guests coming from out of the prefecture (or from overseas for that matter) and wanting to try Nagano’s soba, I can confidently say that Kusabue is a duly suitable representative for our famed soba.
Kusabue’s main restaurant faces Kaikoen’s parking lot just to the west of ‘San no Mon’, the castle’s distinctive gate. Just minutes by foot from Komoro Station on the Shinano Railway line. Kusabue’s website is here.
*Hours: 10am-3:30pm or until they sell out. (From 11am in winter.)
“Hatsukoi Ringo Buro” (Hatsukoi Apple Bath). Apples are floated on hot spring water.
Outlook of “Heiseikan” accommodation building.
“Nakadanasou” is a Japanese-style hot spring inn in Komoro city founded in 1898. This 113-year-old traditional inn is especially renowned for its association with Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943), a prominent Japanese author and poet. Toson loved to stay here and enjoyed its hot springs which contain healing power. Nakadanasou even appears in Toson’s famous poem called “Chikumagawa Ryojou No Uta”.
The main buildings of Nakadanasou are “Taishokan” (accommodation where Toson stayed and wrote the above poem), “Heiseikan” (new accommodation), and “Harikoshitei” (Japanese restaurant). While the whole site is filled with a classic and tranquil atmosphere, its modern and convenient amenities ensure your comfortable stay at the same time.
I had lunch at the restaurant Harikoshitei. The building of Harikoshitei, designated as important cultural property, is a large old house in the Edo period. When I visited there, many dolls were beautifully displayed for the coming Girl’s Festival on March 3rd. It is a Japanese custom to exhibit special dolls called “hina dolls” to celebrate the festival. The restaurant serves Japanese country-style food using fresh local ingredients. I had a set lunch called “Hatsukoi Gozen”. Many small plates, such as tempura, fish and simmered vegetables, were served in a beautiful basket. Furthermore, sashimi (raw fish), chawanmushi (steamed egg custard in a cup), soba noodles and a Japanese-style dessert were served. I truly enjoyed the tasty and beautiful meal while looking at the pretty dolls.
I also experienced its famous “Hatsukoi Ringo Buro”, which literally means “first love apple bath”. The word “hatsukoi” was named after Toson’s poem in which apples appear. From October to May, apples are floated on the hot spring water. The sweet smell of apples really relaxed both my mind and body. The hot spring bath is available throughout the year (from June to September with no apples), to both overnight guests and day visitors. Please contact the inn to confirm the opening hours for day visitors.
Finally, let me add that the inn is conveniently located for sightseeing. Komoro station and Kaikoen Park are just 15 minutes’ walk. Karuizawa, a popular mountain resort good for shopping, skiing and other leisure activities, is 20 minutes’ train ride. “Asama 2000”, a ski resort at the altitude of 2,000 meters with natural powder snow, is 30 minutes’ drive by car.
Why not experience traditional culture and cuisine in Nanadansou?
A large guest room that has Japanese rooms and a Western room with a great garden view.
The restaurant “Harikoshitei”, designated as important cultural property, was decorated with pretty hina dolls for the Girl’s Festival.
|Name of the facility||Nakadanasou|
|Description of business||accommodation (capacity of 70 guests), restaurant, public hot spring bath|
|Tel||0267-22-1511 (Japan country code: 81)|
|Fax||0267-22-9191 (Japan country code: 81)|
|URL||http://www.nakadanasou.com (Click “ENGLISH WEBSITE”)|
|Address||Kojou Nakadana, Komoro, Nagano, 384-8558, Japan|
|Reservations and inquiries||Please contact by email or use the inquiry form on website.|
|Operating dates and hours||
|Room rates and other prices||
Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture’s third largest city, has a central “downtown” core just up from the main station. It has narrow cobblestone-like side streets with interesting nooks and crannies that beg to be explored. Amongst them are two “can’t miss” shops that arguably define Ueda City.
First is a soba restaurant with a 300-year history, “Katana-ya“. This place has been a restaurant longer than the country of my birth — the United States — has been a country! The very first time I came to Nagano, I was treated to a lunch at this venerable noodle shop; that was my introduction to the famous buckwheat noodles of Nagano. Katana-ya remains popular with the locals to this day, and is known for the large volume of their soba dishes. Come to think of it, that’s probably why my host at the time choose Katana-ya (she probably figured my over-sized body came with an over-sized appetite).
After shopping in the area, we finished up at Ueda’s main shopping arcade, “Unnomachi”, to buy “Jiman-yaki” pastries at Fuji Ice. While the shop does sell ice cream, their main attraction are their little pastries filled with custard creme or adzuki bean paste. Their tasty creations tend to attract a line of customers. Apparently the shop had just been featured on TV recently, so the normally long line of people was extra long today, so many customers that the street out front was turning into the shop’s private parking lot.
Anyways, a lot of our tourists stop in Ueda to check out the castle and get a taste of the city’s samurai history. I highly suggest taking a walk around the core shopping area, with a visit to Katana-ya if you’re hungry (really hungry) for soba, and/or joining the line at the pastry shop in Unnojuku.
There’s a saying in Japanese that basically translates as, “Wives and tatami mats are best when they are new.” Here in Nagano, I think there is one more thing that people get excited about when new: soba. Nagano is proud of its buckwheat noodles, and it seems everywhere you look nowadays, there’s a Soba Festival going on somewhere in Nagano. Our guests often ask “When does Shin (New) Soba start?” So I checked with my soba man, Yamaguchi-san of Yamaguchi-ya soba restaurant in Togakushi. He told me that harvest has already started, but it takes time to process the soba and verify the quality of the crop. So his restaurant plans on starting New Soba on the first of November. Other restaurants may have already started serving New Soba, but you might want to verify whether or not they use local buckwheat.
So in order to get New Soba, you have to wait a little while longer. I promise, though, it will be worth the wait.
A special Congratulations to all of you Dads out there on this Father’s Day. I hope all of you spent a fun day with your families. We sure did here at the Lynch household — we went for a drive up to Togakushi.
Our Togakushi trips tend to follow this formula:
delicious soba noodles at Yamaguchi-ya,
ninja fun at the Ninja Center,
and feeling the power of mother nature among the massive, ancient cedar trees lining the path to Okusha Shrine.
This time, however, we immersed ourselves a little further into the Togakushi experience (a bit too literally at one point). After ooh-ing and aah-ing at the Okusha cedar trees, we decided to check out the Nature Reserve next to it. We had never been into the actual reserve before. The path towards Okusha isn’t exactly crowded with people, but it was amazing that just leaving the path and entering the reserve brought us to a world of lush greenery and intense stillness. Only the sound of the wind through the leaves and the birds chirping could be heard. The quietness of the woods and marshes was powerful. Once again, we were amazed by Togakushi and became even bigger fans of Nagano.
After stopping for icecream, we drove over to Kagami-ike (Mirror Pond) to watch the sun set over Togakushi Mountain. Togakushi and its western peak seemed like they were playfully streaming their fingers through the high clouds that were drifting by. The scene was beautifully reflected in the lake surface.
My wife and I were just thinking how romantic of a setting it was, when all of the sudden, Splash! Our #2 son, Kenny, had fallen into the pond.
Maybe we should have stopped after the first child. Just kidding!
After that little “happening”, we took bare-bottomed Kenny (who would have thought we’d need an extra pair of pants for an elementary school kid!) and the other kids for a real-life, hard-core Togakushi Ninja training. I will write more about that a later time, but let’s just suffice it to say that it was the real thing, and my entire body is in pain as a result.
Thanks to Togakushi, this was one of the best Father’s Days ever!